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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Tin Man (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Tin Man is an interesting piece of science-fiction situated towards the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Michael Piller’s focus on character general shifted the show a little bit away from science-fiction high-concepts, with Tin Man feeling like something of a companion piece to the science-fiction mystery of The Survivors. It’s a story about the wonders of the universe, a rather eloquent (and underrated) celebration of the limitless potential that exists out in the cosmos.

This no the Tam or the place...

This no the Tam or the place…

It’s interesting that The Next Generation has really taken this long to play with the idea of what it must be like to be a Betazoid. Although they tend to be taken for granted now, Betazoids were one of the most significant introductions made by the early episodes of The Next Generation to the Star Trek mythos. The Enterprise visited Betazed in Haven, early in the first season. One of the show’s few recurring characters from outside the crew is a Betazoid diplomat.

Deanna Troi is the only regular with a heritage that doesn’t extend back to classic Star Trek. Most of the ensemble is human. Outside of those human characters, Klingons and androids were a staple of classic Star Trek. Troi, on the other hand, is something very new. While she is half-human, it’s strange that her Betazoid origins were almost completely unexplored. The show has been peeling back the layers on Worf as a character, and Data is one of the most compelling members of the cast.

Everybody chips in...

Everybody chips in…

Other Star Trek shows traditionally tried to showcase their alien crewmembers, especially those belonging to exotic species. After all, Spock’s Vulcan heritage was a constant source of fascination on the classic Star Trek. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine delved eagerly into the heritage of Kira, Odo, Worf, Dax and Quark. Even Star Trek: Voyager found time to explore Ocampan (and, to a lesser extent, Talaxian) culture on a superficial level.

In contrast, we know very little about Betazoid culture after spending three seasons with Deanna Troi. What we do now is that the writers have tended to graft on unfunny jokes as the show progressed. There’s an annoying gong they bang while they are eating. Betazoid women become incredibly sexually active as they enter middle age. Betazoid weddings involve nudity, because that’s the only way to make those sorts of occasions more awkward.

Stars his destination...

Stars his destination…

There’s been little real attempt to provide a larger context for any of this, and we have no idea how Betazoid society or culture works. Are there Betazoid citizens who have eschewed vocal communication completely? Is there a literal cultural consciousness on Betazed, with all those linked minds? What’s it like to dream on a planet where anybody might wander into your dreams or you might subconsciously wander into theirs?

These are just some of the questions that occur when thinking about Betazoids for more than thirty seconds. That seems to be more thought than anybody working on the show has put into the heritage of Deanna Troi. Troi and the Betazoids seem to have been created by Roddenberry as an attempt to channel “new age” spirituality – a distant echo of the fascination with “ESP” that showed up in Where No Man Has Gone Before, all those years earlier.

Betazoid mind meld!

Betazoid mind meld!

This notion of extra-sensory perception and awareness might have fit well within the wider context of seventies spirituality, but it felt out of place with the show’s decidedly eighties and nineties aesthetic. The writers frequently joke about how seating a therapist next to the captain on the bridge inevitably dates the show, but Troi’s whole “I feel great [emotion]“ schtick feels like a holdover from decades long past.

It seems quite likely that lack of interest in Betazoid culture and tradition is rooted in the same issues that made it so hard to write for Troi in the first place; Troi seems strangely out of place on a late eighties and early nineties television show. Whatever the reason, Star Trek: The Next Generation never really delved into what it must be like to be Betazoid, and to interact with a Betazoid.

It does look like Tam is a little late to the face palm party...

It does look like Tam is a little late to the face palm party…

In terms of structure and function, Tin Man really feels like it should have been a first-season show, introducing audiences to a concept that would be developed as the show went along. Deanna Troi’s back story working at a hospital for those suffering severe psychological trauma seems like it might be fodder for later stories. Introducing us to the hyper-sensitive Tam Elbrun seems like it’s setting up a more in-depth exploration of Betazoid culture at some point down the road.

Instead, the episode’s focus on the Betazoid Tam Elbrun feels unique. This is really the last time that The Next Generation would be too bothered about what it must be like to be a Betazoid. It’s very weird that the show is only getting around to this now, and it’s perhaps an indicator of just how difficult production was on those first two seasons. And, to be fair, Tin Man works very hard to make up for lost in offering us a glimpse of what it must be like to be a Betazoid, and to deal with one.

Troi-ing to get through to him...

Troi-ing to get through to him…

Elbrun is not a typical Betazoid, we’re told. He’s a genetic abnormality; he’s hyper-sensitive. Apparently, he was “born with his telepathic abilities switched on.” That must really mess up a kid. Imagine having that just flood into your head from the time you were an infant. Imagine being able to hear what everybody thinks of you when you are a teenager. Imagine never being allowed a moment of peace so long as you are are surrounded by other people. It’s a terrifying thought, something profound and existential.

Tam Elbrun is a fantastic creation, skilfully brought to life by Harry Groener. Elbrun is a character who could easily seem arrogant or confrontational – he’s brusque and a little arrogant, with surprisingly little empathy for a man who can’t help but read the thoughts of others. When Picard offers to show him to his quarters, he refuses, “No. I’d rather get this briefing over with. Then be left alone until I’m needed.” It would be easy to make him seem cranky or grumpy, but Groener lends him a sympathetic quality. He’s not really being rude so much as he seems to be trying to protect himself.

Looking out for him...

Looking out for him…

We get a glimpse of what it must be like to live with those Betazoid abilities. Elbrun and Deanna finish each other’s thoughts. (Deanna is, understandably, more comfortable with this than any of the rest of the cast.) He frequently preempts Captain Picard. He finds Data absolutely fascinating. “Well, having to get to know someone, just once, has its appeal,” he tells Deanna. “I mean, talking to them, instead of getting it all at once up here whether I want it or not.”

Then again, we get a sense of why the earlier seasons of the show could never delve into the Betazoid culture or mindset. In order to generate drama in a story involving a mind-reader, you need a divide between what people are saying and what they are thinking. The first two seasons of The Next Generation tended to treat the cast as flawless individuals, who could always say what was on their mind without the risk of generating conflict or causing controversy. It would have been very difficult to write a story around “everyone on staff is saying exactly what they’re thinking.” The telepath becomes redundant.

No one knows what's like to be the sad man behind black eyes...

No one knows what’s like to be the sad man behind black eyes…

In the third season, a bit of ambiguity has begun to develop. Our characters are all still noble heroes, but they seem a bit more multi-faceted and real than they used to. Things are not as clear-cut as they were during the opening two seasons. One of the defining elements of Elbrun’s back story is a failed mission on Ghorusda, which cost the lives of several Starfleet officers. Elbrun claims that the incident wasn’t his fault, and the narrative remains sympathetic to him.

“Maybe I got too involved with the Ghorusdans,” he confesses to Deanna, “with their point of view. It happens to me.” While it seems that he messed up, it’s hard to blame Elbrun directly for all that loss. However, Tin Man allows for some ambiguity in how Elbrun is perceived by the cast. It’s hard to imagine Picard or Riker being allowed to harbour suspicions of an exonerated Federation official in the first or second season, certainly not if he held no direct responsibility for the tragedy. Here, however, Tin Man generates considerable drama off the idea that Elbrun knows that they don’t trust him.

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

It’s not as if the situation is one-sided. Riker and Picard’s misgivings are perfectly logical. “Board of inquiry blamed Darson for carelessness about Ghorusdan cultural taboos,” Riker concedes to Geordi. “But if Elbrun was so good, why didn’t he warn Darson? What was he doing there if he couldn’t sense that much hostility?” Given the risks involved in this mission, the concerns around Elbrun are legitimate.

This is the sort of interesting dramatic set up that would have been prohibited by the “no conflict” rules that applied during the first two seasons. Elbrun would have to be a raving mad man or sociopath like Jameson in Too Short a Season in order for the episode to justify Picard’s misgivings. Instead, the situation is a bit more complicated and nuanced. It’s a demonstration of how far The Next Generation has come that this sort of dramatic conflict is possible.

Looking inside...

Looking inside…

All of this leads to one of the strongest moments in the episode, when Elbrun argues with Riker’s thoughts. Riker might have his misgivings, but he’s polite towards the guest. However, Elbrun can’t help but sense the honest (and legitimate) concerns running through Riker’s mind. So, without warning after conceding he’d been too distracted to mention the Romulans, Elbrun suddenly turns to the Enterprise’s second-in-command.

“And no, Billy boy, I wasn’t distracted on Ghorusda. If Darson had listened to me, no one would have died.” Riker doesn’t say anything to cause a scene. But he clearly thinks it. “No? Well I don’t care whether you believe that or not.” It’s a rather wonderful scene, because it depends on the characters being able to say and think two very different things. Riker is a professional who would never bandy around accusations like that in a meeting, but it’s fair that his mind might wander to those possibilities. It’s a scene that would never really work on the first or second seasons of the show.

Give his head peace...

Give his head peace…

Outside of the character of Tam Elbrun, who really remains one of the show’s best and most fascinating guest characters to date, Tin Man is a fascinating science-fiction adventure. Picard’s Enterprise seems to spend most of its time ferrying diplomats or dealing with interstellar politics, with an occasional space virus or “planet of the somethings” thrown in to keep things lively. It’s quite rare that Picard’s Enterprise actually feels like it’s going – boldly or otherwise – where no one has gone before.

That’s not a criticism, by the by. The Next Generation never felt quite as “far out” as the original Star Trek, and that was one of the aspects of the show that distinguished it from its predecessor. There’s a sense that The Next Generation is unfolding in a universe that has changed substantively since Kirk and Spock went adventuring. This sense of familiarity and this interest in the maintaining (rather than expanding) the frontier is a vital part of the identity of The Next Generation.

Looks like the briefing may not have been brief enough...

Looks like the briefing may not have been brief enough…

Still, it’s nice to see the show returning to that sense of wonder and mystery. In the opening scene, DeSoto playfully jokes about the Enterprise being a “luxury liner”, which seems like a fair comment. (On the other hand, his “far reaches” comment doesn’t seem to gel quite so easily with what we’ve seen.) When Tam Elbrun arrives with the mission briefing on the eponymous space ship, it’s clear that Tin Man is going to be a story about the wonders of space.

The mission takes the Enterprise “twenty-three parsecs beyond [their] furthest manned explorations.” Elbrun outlines the mission objectives in decidedly romantic terms, “Starfleet believes it’s an organic creature, born in space, living its life in the wastes between stars. No one knows where it came from, or why it’s here. But we’re going to meet it. We’re going to talk to it.” There’s a sense that the Enterprise is really venturing into the unknown.

Click your heels if you believe...

Click your heels if you believe…

So much, in fact, that the Romulan subplot seems a little superfluous. Even Tam Elbrun has to struggle to remember them in his briefing. “Hell, I forgot. The Romulans.” The episode doesn’t seem too bothered with the Romulans either. They seem like a rather tacked-on element designed to raise the dramatic stakes. They exist as generic adversaries to give the script a sense of tension, much like their use in Contagion. It doesn’t quite work, as impressive as the episode’s model work and special effects are.

Still, Tin Man feels like a genuine piece of science-fiction, the kind of story that the Star Trek spin-offs seemed to drift away from over time. Even among the third season of The Next Generation, Tin Man stands out as a rather peculiar instalment. It is very much at odds with the general regular-character-driven focus of the season. While Troi and Data both get to interact with Elbrun, the story is primarily about Elbrun and Tin Man.

Staring at the stars...

Staring at the stars…

This sense of high-concept science fiction is probably because Tin Man is based on the short story Tin Woodsman, published in 1977. It became a Nebula Awards finalist that year. Authors David Bischoff and Dennis Russell Bailey adapted Tin Woodsman into a novel in 1979. With the help of Lisa Putman White, they duo adapted their short story for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bailey has argued that the finished version of the episode remains true to their original vision:

Lolita Fatjo tells me that Tin Man was the last spec script submitted by outsiders that was bought and produced as such by Star Trek — over the years they’ve bought quite a few spec story treatments and scripts which have then gone through in-house rewrites to become episodes, but that’s a little different. The only three scripts submitted on spec that have been purchased and produced have been The Measure Of A Man by Melinda Snodgrass, The Bonding by Ron Moore, and Tin Man.

That probably explains why Tin Man feels so different to all the other episodes around it. It hasn’t been re-written by the Next Generation writing team to fit more comfortably with Michael Piller’s vision of the series. (In the same way that René Echevarria’s The Offspring was heavily reworked by Melinda Snodgrass and Michael Piller.) Indeed, only one letter in the protagonist’s last name has been switched around from the source material. (From “Elburn” to “Elbrun.”)

'zoid rage...

‘zoid rage…

Star Trek has a long history of borrowing or appropriating ideas from science-fiction writers and stories. Data, for example, owes a huge debt to the work of Isaac Asimov. The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Whispers seems to owe a debt to the work of Philip K. Dick. It makes a great deal of sense for Star Trek, as a decidedly high-profile vehicle for science-fiction, to play with these sort of science-fiction standards. At the same, time, however, it seems like the franchise has distanced itself from the genre and the writers working in it.

The classic Star Trek show would recruit contemporary science-fiction writers like Theodore Sturgeon or Harlan Ellison or Norman Spinrad or Richard Matheson to write for the show. Even if Gene Roddenberry would write over their initial drafts, there was still a sense that these writers were producing material for Star Trek. Larry Niven even provided an overlap between Star Trek and his own work with The Slaver Weapon. The spin-offs were less keen to welcome science-fiction writers from outside the franchise.

El(brun) things must pass...

El(brun) things must pass…

That’s what makes Tin Man so striking. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction story by the authors of that story, for the show. It’s not appropriating outside ideas or concepts, it’s allowing writers to incorporate their own ideas into the wider mythos. It’s breathtaking and exciting, and something radically different from what we’ve come to expect from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s just a shame that these sorts of things were only occasional treats.

Tin Man is a rather strange episode, but in a refreshing sort of way. It’s a very thoughtful and insightful piece of television, and a demonstration of just how flexible The Next Generation can be.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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9 Responses

  1. A few points

    The guest actor here played Ralph in the sitcom Dear John with Judd Hirsch.

    It is odd that he cannot read Data’s mind since Spock could mind meld with computers. Perhaps Vulcan telepathy is different from Betazoid. Has anyone discussed this?

    Knew it was based on a novel but not that it was a nebula nominee. Was novel nominated or just the short story?

    • Well, to be fair, the Data being unreadable thing is portrayed internally consistently. After all, Troi is surprised when she feels emotion from Data in Descent, if I recall correctly. (It has been years since I watched the episode, though.)

      I believe the short story was the nominee, and that success lead them to expand it into a novel, but I’m not 100% sure on that last bit.

  2. Nice review. Thanks.

    Yeah, the short story was nominated for the Nebula. The story was broken up into the first several chapters of the novel, which then went off in a different direction.

    One of the few things we were asked to change after the script was bought was the name of the protagonist. “You can type ‘Div Harlthor,’ we were told, “but you can’t *say* it.” LOL

    • Thanks Dennis. I think Tin Man is a gem, one of the highlights of the season. (And, perhaps, one of the most overlooked gems from the run of The Next Generation.)

      So the character wasn’t originally named in homage to the lead character from the story? (Because I think there are only a couple of letters in difference for the final version.)

      Also, if it’s not prying – Tin Man stands out in the third season for being built around a guest character. (Of the other episodes that season, only Sarek and The Defector (and MAYBE Yesterday’s Enterprise) really fall into that bracket after Piller took over.) Piller wanted to focus on the show’s leads, so a lot of the stories were built around them – a Crusher story, a Picard story, a Worf story, etc. Did you get any feedback on that when writing the script?

  3. Thanks again for the kind words about the show.

    We submitted “Tin Man” as a spec script; TNG bought it as written and then there were some brief revisions to it before shooting. The very short version of how that happened is that they had a potential hole in their shooting schedule in February of 1990 while they prepped the first Barclay story and they needed a production-ready script on very short notice. Our spec script fit their needs.

    So we had no contact with or input from the producers before writing the script and very little of it was changed after they bought it. There really wasn’t time for much feedback.

    In both the short story and novel version of “Tin Woodman” there are two telepaths – the young male super-gifted one who’s sent out to make contact with the alien was named “Div Harlthor” and the female who was permanently assigned to the starship Pisces/Pegasus was named “Mora Elbrun.” In the Trek episode “Tin Man,” Troi fills in for Elbrun and we substituted “Elbrun” for “Harlthor.” Dave Bischoff came up with “Tam” as a new given name – I’m not sure what his inspiration was.

  4. Being verbose, I’ll add that most of my favorite “Star Trek” stories date from the first season of the original TV series – they were heavily science fiction-flavored and often as not revolved around the personal crises of guest characters, in keeping with Roddenberry’s early pitch for the series as “an anthology with continuing characters.” So those early TOS episodes were the model for “Tin Man;” there’s more than a little of Charlie Evans’s DNA in there. ;-)

    • The first season really was a phenomenal run for the classic show, wasn’t it? Although I think I lean more towards the politically allegorical Gene L. Coon stuff in the tail end myself.

    • As an aside, I am currently weighing up expanding my Star Trek reviews into some eBook volumes for the fiftieth anniversary in 2016.

      I was wondering – and apologies if this is an intrusion – if I were to do that, might it be possible to arrange an over-emails questions-and-answers interview at some point in the next year or so that could be included as a supplemental feature? I might see if I can get a few short questions-and-answers from various people involved in the shows.

      It is probably unlikely happen, and apologies for sort of putting you on the spot like this (I wasn’t sure whether to send you an email or if that would be intrusive), but I thought I would broach the idea just in case?

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